Missouri’s Parkway School District recently purchased 400 electronic devices to track 2,500 elementary students’ physical activity, first during gym classes this spring and possibly 24/7 after that.
The Polar Active monitors track a person’s heart rate, calories burned, steps taken, and even sleep patterns on a watch-like display. Physical education teachers can access data collected from the monitors at PolarGoFit.com to view, analyze, and evaluate their students’ progress.
“This is another sign of public schools encroaching on the purview of the parents,” said Lisa Snell, Reason Foundation’s director of education and child welfare. “The sentiments are in the right place, but it seems highly inappropriate as official school policy. It crosses the line.”
Public schools in New Jersey and New York have also put the monitors on their students.
Parkway ran a pilot program with the monitors in spring 2011, said Cathy Kelly, communications coordinator for Parkway School District. Kelly said the district decided in December 2011 to purchase more monitors and expand the pilot. Parkway purchased the monitors, which run $90 each, but the district will first get parent consent before fully implementing the program, she said.
“The primary objective is to communicate with students,” she said. “It seems to be an effective tool and can help students set goals for themselves.”
Parents previously reported they had not been consulted about having their children wear the monitors. Once parents sign on, the district will implement the program in fourth and fifth grade PE classes in all 18 of its elementary schools. About 2,500 Parkway students will use the monitors this spring, Kelly said. The school plans to use the information about student activity and sleep patterns to draw conclusions about how these influence academic achievement.
One-third of Parkway students are considered overweight, she said, so the district recently formed a Wellness Committee.
“Parents said that health education was a priority for them,” Kelly said. “We want to teach our kids how to lead healthy, more active lifestyles.”
Fitness vs. Academics
The monitors help students stay responsible for achieving their fitness goals, said Ron Ramspott, Parkway’s health, outdoor, and physical education coordinator. He said students who pass more fitness proficiency levels tend to score higher on reading and math exams.
Despite such potential benefits, Snell said schools shouldn’t monitor its students so closely or spend so much on fitness.
“Their core mission should not be to reduce obesity in America,” she said. “It should be to educate.”
If the program is voluntary, or parents seek out a school that emphasizes physical education, these concerns dissipate, Snell said.
The monitors should last about five years, so cost approximately $14 per student, Kelly said.
Initially, students will wear the monitors only during PE. Student may start wearing them outside of PE in a few years. Kelly said the district will communicate more with parents before that shift takes place.
Image by Jason Carter.